We’ve all been there. Stumbling into an elaborate new obsession or hobby, mulling it over for days upon days, before finally deciding to pull the trigger on it and get stuck in, only to be hit with the paradox of choice when trying to figure out where to begin.
Nowhere is this a bigger wormhole than in the field of film photography. So where DO you begin? There’s years and years and years worth of cameras across every format, and even if you can nail that down, you’ve got point and shoots, rangefinders, SLRs, TLRs, instant, fixed lens, the list goes on and on. To top it all off, the vast majority of your options are borderline antique, meaning you can either pay top dollar in a camera store (and risk paying at least triple what the camera is actually worth) or taking a risk on eBay/Depop or an equivalent. Having shot film for over four years now and tried out most of the cameras people tend to go for across all three formats during my degree, I figured I’d pull together a little guide of tips on what to think about when buying for anyone from general photography beginners, to more experienced shooters looking to grab something with a bit more soul than a DSLR.
Firstly, answer the question of why you’re getting into film photography. I know it’s cliché, but at the end of the day, the equipment doesn’t matter. That being said, overspending on a piece of kit you don’t need is a bit silly, and so is copping a bargain, before finding out it’s not fit for purpose. I’ve tried to break down this decision, based on the format, in the sections below:
Just looking to shoot casual snaps when you’re out and about?
Prioritise portability and ease of use. I’d recommend a 35mm point and shoot or SLR.
The former (depending on the model) will allow for limited creative control, no interchangeable lenses, meaning you’re stuck with a 35 or 50mm most often, and autofocus with occasionally questionable accuracy. The trade-off is that nothing will beat it in terms of speed and ease of use. Point and shoots can go for anywhere from about £20 to a couple of hundred, and to be honest, I wouldn’t advise you to go over thirty. Get yourself something from a reputable brand like Canon, Nikon or Olympus and make sure it works. When doing research prioritise fast and accurate autofocus (keeping in mind we’re looking at 30+-year-old cameras here), and a decent flash. And please, for the love of God, don’t believe the hype around the Olympus MJU ii - it’s a decent point and shoot for £50, but nowadays people are asking many times that, presumably, because there are suckers out there paying for it.
The next step up in complexity would be a 35mm SLR or Rangefinder. Here, the options vary tremendously in terms of price and how feature-rich they are. If you’re pivoting into analogue from a DSLR and intend to use it professionally or at least in a capacity where you’d like some more advanced features like mirror lock-up, full manual mode, interchangeable prisms etc, I’d recommend looking at the professional range cameras from Canon and Nikon. I recently bought a Nikon F3 and I’m beyond impressed with it - you get a wealth of lenses to play with, bulb and time exposure, mirror lockup, interchangeable prisms with the option to shoot with a waist-level viewfinder, and even interchangeable focusing screens. Expect to pay around £300 for a body and lens combo online.
Conversely, if you’re looking for a nice middle ground between a point and shoot and a pro-grade SLR, there’s the iconic trio of the Canon AE-1, Olympus OM-10 and Pentax K-1000 - these are commonly dubbed “student” cameras, which I’ve always found a bit misleading. I’ve only had an AE-1 and my girlfriend has an OM-10 and they’re both more than fully-featured enough for 95% of photography either of us would be likely to employ them for. With these, expect to pay somewhere in the £100 - £150 range, though I’ve seen an AE-1 with a standard lens going for £300 (ridiculous) at a Camera store, and I grabbed my one back in the day for about £70 with a Zeiss lens off a private seller on eBay. It just goes to show you can get tremendously lucky online (I’ll get into how I go about it in a future article). In this category, there are also plenty of cameras by the likes of Konica, Minolta, Practika, etc. Don’t dismiss these brands on account of them no longer existing or being less known, just be aware and do your research with the specific camera you’re buying. Some are great and significantly cheaper than more famous options, others aren’t worth the savings (specifically beware of the likes of Zenit). My advice would be to stay away from anything with too much electronics (they’re more liable to fail (remember the age) and harder to fix if they do) and buy based on the lens mount. The reason Nikon SLRs from this era out-price Canon for instance is that every Nikon SLR (including their DSLRs) is compatible with every* lens, regardless of generation, meaning your options in terms of expanding your arsenal are significantly larger.
*This is a bit of an oversimplification, there are many generations of Nikon lenses with a tremendous amount of variety, but that’s cause for an entirely new article in and of itself so I won’t get into it here.
Right, if you’re a true beginner or someone only looking to shoot casually, you can stop reading here. In summary, think about how deep into this rabbit hole you want to go. If you’re keen to actively learn and have a deeper interest in photography, think long term, get a nice SLR with interchangeable lenses depending on your budget currently. If you’re a pro or you’re interested in only ever buying one 35mm camera without needing to upgrade the body in the foreseeable future and have a bit more to spend, look at the Canon and Nikon professional ranges. Conversely, if you just want a film camera to take casual snapshots with and can’t be bothered with manual focus, lenses or complexity - opt for a decent (and not overpriced point and shoot). Shop in-store at your discretion, knowing you’d be paying a premium, often as a trade-off to knowing the exact condition of the camera you’re buying and having a guarantee it works, or hold off and read my guide to shopping for cameras on eBay (coming soon) to learn how to do it risk-free and get yourself a bargain.
Those of you that are interested in a bit more firepower or resolution might be considering jumping into medium format. Things are less standardised here in terms of design, with cameras taking on different forms - there are twin-lens reflexes, modular systems such as the Hasselblad 500 or Mamiya RB67, as well as systems that are a bit more familiar to a 35mm or DSLR shooter, like the Mamiya 7 or Pentax 67. There are also multiple sub-formats, wherein the long edge of the frame is different. The most common formats are 6x6, 6x7, and 6x9. What all of this amounts to is the same question from earlier - why do you need a medium format camera?
The added resolution means you can crop in easily, however, if you’re primarily interested in portraiture perhaps you want to gravitate towards a 6x7 camera of a 4x5 aspect ratio, so that you don’t always have to crop (or maybe you like a 1x1 ratio, in which case 6x6 is totally fine). Maybe you prefer landscapes or street photography and want to fit into that workflow with a wider aspect ratio and even higher resolution, so you’d gravitate towards a 6x9. If you do a lot of work with flash, a top priority should be a system that uses leaf-shutter lenses instead of a focal plane shutter, as those can sync to any shutter speed, and with a lot of medium format SLRs, like my Pentacon Six, the sync speed (fastest shutter speed you can use with flash) is rather pathetic - I only get 1/15th of a second. There is also the matter of portability - medium format cameras range from barely heavier than 35mm, like the Mamiya 7, to cameras so bulky and heavy they’re almost completely unusable off a tripod, like the RB67. Finally, you have to keep in mind your budget - by and large medium format is less popular amongst amateurs as the smaller amount of images you can fit on a roll and the higher barrier to entry in terms of. the learning curve makes it a more difficult format to jump into. There are great cameras on the cheaper end of the spectrum in all three main sub formats, such as the RB67, which is a monster in terms of its design, lens selection and weight, or the Pentacon Six (which is an absolute steal for the amount of camera you get, though it’s got a lot of character, and not always in a good way). Bronica also make solid, workhorse alternatives across all formats, which won’t break the bank too badly. It’s also worth noting that with medium format and a decent scanner, you can expect to outperform a DSLR in terms of fidelity, so unless you’re printing that large or need the flexibility of being able to crop in with little penalty, it’s worth thinking twice about whether the comparative lack of convenience is worth it.
Finally, there’s large format. I won’t spend too much time here as I believe the use-cases are far fewer than the other two formats and frankly, I’m not that experienced with it.
Large format cameras come in two standard sizes - 8x10 and 4x5. I’ve found a negative comparison between 4x5 and 35mm for you below, it truly is a sight to behold.
These big negatives mean big cameras and a lot of extra kit. Wherewith 35mm you can more or less buy one and go, and with medium format, you might need to rely at the very least on a light meter app on your phone and be fine, here you absolutely need a tripod, cable release, dark cloth, changing bag, film holders, a blower, lens cleaning solution, a loupe, a good light meter and the list goes on and on. Whilst it is a gorgeous format and provides the unrivalled best in terms of fidelity and resolution, it comes at a great expense. You’re more or less constrained to still scenes, such as still life, landscape and portraiture. The film is incredibly expensive - as an example Kodak Portra 160, which costs about £10 a roll at 35mm and £11 at 120, costs an incredible £23 PER SHOT at 8x10, or £230 for a single pack. Of course, these prices are lower in 4x5 and even lower when looking at black and white film, but it’s certainly worth noting if you’re considering taking the leap. Unless you have some subjects lined up that are really that special to you, and/or you absolutely NEED the resolution (which at that point is so outrageously high, I’d wager nobody reading this actually does). I’d relegate large format to an occasional, secondary, “special occasion” format if you will. It’s something that I want to get into at some point, but cannot honestly justify for myself at the moment. My recommendation here would be, go on a photo rental website like Fatllama and see if you can’t borrow a kit for a few days. Buy some film, shoot it, see how you feel. It is a very, very special experience looking through the ground glass of a large-format camera and one I hope anyone with an interest in analogue photography gets to experience someday!
And that brings us to a close! Was that useful? I hope so. If you have any questions or are in need or recommendations please do not hesitate to reach out to me via email or social, my DMs are always open! Finally, please consider supporting me on Patreon, doing so will grant you access to upcoming content early, as well as other nifty perks. Or, if monthly pledges aren’t your thing, you can head to my store, where you can find fine art prints, as well as premium postcards, featuring my photography! You can also follow me on Instagram, and subscribe to my mailing list to keep in touch with anything I’ve got going on! Have a wonderful day!